St. George’s School is under intense scrutiny after a group of former students accused the school covering up years of sexual abuse, much of it dating to the 1970s and 80s. Their accounts raise questions about the culture of the elite, Episcopal boarding school, which remains largely unknown to outsiders.
Former students and a former teacher offer a portrait of a school with strong traditions, intense academics, and a history of hazing.
Located atop a hill, with expansive views of the beaches of Aquidneck Island, St. George’s boasts a lavish campus, and a roster of prominent alumni.
Lockett Ford Ballard Jr. graduated from St. George’s in 1964. At that time, it was an all-boys school with only about 200 students, modeled in the style of a British boarding school.
“It was very traditional,” said Ballard. “My last year, St. George’s admitted its first black student, which was much of a major change. That was back in the era when they’d suspend you or throw you out for smoking a cigarette.”
According to Ballard, when an exchange student from England was caught smoking, he was sent home within 24 hours.
Despite strict rules, Ballard said his memories are generally positive. He was a rule follower, so much so that his nickname was Pious.
“I was very much a goody two shoes. Somebody tried to teach me to swear my second year there,” said Ballard.
Ballard spent his time with the artsy crowd, as he calls it, avoiding the bullying and hazing some former students say was pervasive.
One student who graduated in 1970, and didn’t want to be recorded for this story, said during his time at St. George’s, bullying was ubiquitous. He believes faculty knew about at least some of the bullying, but viewed hardship as a way to shape boys into men.
This student describes being pinned down by students, who cut his hair and threw him, fully clothed, into the school’s pool. Decades later, he experienced a panic attack during a casual visit to campus.
Ballard remembers nothing like that, but both were surprised to find out about widespread allegations of sexual abuse by faculty, and in a few cases, students.
“Something like that, that is so hidden, and the two people involved aren’t going to do anything to inform,” said Ballard. “How do you find out what’s going on?
Some former students who have come forward recently never mentioned their abuse during their time at St. George’s. But others say the school did nothing, or simply let the faculty members in question go quietly.
And it seems that’s not unusual. People with knowledge of sexual abuse cases say many schools have let employees accused of sexual abuse to leave without pursuing public investigations, especially at elite institutions like St. George’s.
Jennifer Day was just 23 when she started working as an art teacher at St. George’s in the late 70s.
“There was a culture of discretion, and not making a big deal out of things,” said Day.
In addition to her classroom duties, Day designed costumes for theater productions, helped out in the athletic department, and served as a girls’ dorm master.
“I could be extremely creative there, and I loved that,” said Day. “I really enjoyed the other faculty, and I very much enjoyed the students.”
Day said she was shocked to learn of the allegations of sexual abuse and vicious bullying. She said her experience was that faculty were protective of students and attentive to their needs.
“If students had problems, even emotional problems, we spoke about them in our meetings,” said Day. “And we were very, how should I say, vigilant, about addressing the problems in the best way that we could.”
By the time Day was teaching at St. George’s, the school had gone co-ed, but Day said in many ways it was still a traditional, Episcopal boarding school. She said a conservative atmosphere contributed to her decision to leave after two years.
A short time after she left, one of her former students, Anne Scott, confided that she had been abused repeatedly during her time at St. George’s by the school’s athletic trainer Al Gibbs.
Scott is now one of the alums spearheading efforts to hold the school accountable for the alleged abuse by Gibbs, and at least five other employees, according to the school's internal investigation.
Day finds it upsetting that it took the school decades to confront the abuse publicly.
“It’s very painful to think that this was allowed to go on, and this was not spoken of, and this was kept under wraps, and this was very discreetly swept under the rug,” said Day.
Kyle Hence said he experienced sexual abuse before he went to St. George’s for his final three years of high school, starting in 1979. Jennifer Day was his art teacher.
Hence recalls an atmosphere of privilege, attending school alongside students with names like Colgate and Mellon.
“It’s an elite environment,” said Hence. “You’re talking about probably the most spectacular campus in the whole country for a private school. Not everyone gets to go to a school like that.”
Hence said the students were kept on strict schedules, with most hours of the day planned.
“I think we were in class by eight. Study hall was from eight to ten. We went to church twice a week. We had classes on Saturday. So the week was full, and the academics were intense.”
Hence also participated in one of the school’s signature programs; a semester at sea, aboard the school-owned vessel Geronimo, tagging sharks in the Caribbean. He also remembers the bullying that other students have described, and Hence believes that faculty turned a blind eye.
“I think the faculty was aware of these traditions, and accepted it,” said Hence. “It was just part of St. George’s culture. It was just passed down through generations of students.”
At least one student from that era says there was an unspoken code of silence, and it was understood that students were never to tell on one another.
Hence said he was never a target for bullies, but he was dealing with his own issues. He threw himself the sailing team, academics, and experimented with drugs and alcohol. Hence was eventually kicked out of St. George’s for cheating, but he doesn’t blame the school.
“You break the rules you pay the consequences," said Hence. "It forced me to look at my behavior. It was blessing in hindsight. It was difficult, but it was a blessing.”
Now Hence feels angry the school failed to live up to its own ideals. He’s been vocal in his criticism, writing letters and op-eds to local news outlets.
“The school has let down its community,” said Hence. “The school has put the lives of many other people in other communities, in other schools in jeopardy, because faculty members, because headmasters, because the board of trustees, did not report what was going on.”
St. George’s may have changed since the 1980s. One current parent describes her child’s experience as overwhelmingly positive, and reports none of the bullying described by older alums. One student who attended in the early 1990s recalls a warm environment, where he made some of his closest friends.
1964 graduate Locket Ford Ballard Jr. plans to leave his estate to the school.
“St. George’s is going through an unfortunate period, but their main raison d’etre, their mission is to provide very high quality secondary education,” said Ballard. “I think they do a fantastic job of that.”
St. George’s has committed to a new independent investigation into the allegations of sexual abuse, and will pay for mental health services for victims. But some alumni, like Kyle Hence, want more, including a peace and reconciliation process, and a larger conversation about bullying and abuse across private schools.
With reporting by Elisabeth Harrison and Chuck Hinman